Decoding the Codex




          The way people talk is fascinating. All beings are in need of communication if they want to survive. Using words, and making noises and sounds are for the purpose of alerting others. Words and sounds inform those around what feelings are had by an individual. They can express fear, happiness, hate, love, freedom, and captivity, along with any and every other thought. Words are intimate and immediate; their meanings are limited by the number of those who hear them and by distance in which they cover. But what about words or sounds that captivate, that motivate, that generate something more satisfying than an immediate story, or restricted belief? The constraint made by ones self has the ability to be overlooked.  A personal restriction on words is a limitation with which an individual can find solace. But there are people that restrict and regulate text to adjust what people think. The invention of movable-type printing sparked a revolution, founded in intellectual independence and spontaneous thought that evolved though the role of literature.


            Methods of documentation have come a long way, as well as the materials used to do so and what was written down. First were the clay tablets in Mesopotamia used primarily as trade documentation, then fast forward to papyrus, used in Egypt to record mostly trade and all spiritual rituals. But as time progressed people began to use an abundance of parchment, which is the hide of an animal, as a source of writing material.  Between 600 A.D. and 900 A.D.[1] there was a consistent production of manuscripts in Europe. Most medieval manuscripts were made from the hide of a sheep, a goat, a deer, a calf, and sometimes pigs –although this was not common because of the low quality.[2]


             The manufacturing of parchment was quite an involved procedure. After the skin is removed from the animal, any hair or remaining flesh was cleaned away by soaking it in lime and alum. It was then washed and stretched over a large wodden frame. While in the process of being stretched, the parchment maker or parchminer, scrapes the surface of the skin down to a required thickness, depending on the animal, with a special curved knife called a lunellum.[3] In order to create tension in the skin, the parchminer repeats the process by having the hide wetted and dried several times in order to bring it to the right thickness and firmness. Sometimes a final finish is achieved using pumice as an abrasive followed by chalk in order to prepare the surface of the skin to accept ink. When the hide was dry, it was cut into sheets. They were then folded in half, which created to leaves, or folios. Each folio has two sides the recto, right-hand of an open book, or page, and verso, the left-side of an open book. The hide, or vellum, was then smoothed with pumice to make it more receptive to the ink and paint. Margins were then pricked on the edge of the leaves by using an awl, then ruled lined were drawn between them to create straight lines. The scribe would then cut and sharpen a feather from a goose, a swan, or a crow to use for a quill. If the scribe ever made a mistake, a penknife would be used to scrape the ink off since the parchment was so thick. The ink favored in medieval manuscripts was made from crushed charcoal or oak galls.[4] The scribe would leave space on the leaves for decoration. Only after the all the writing was complete would the illuminator begin to work. The textual ink had to absorb completely into vellum or else it smudge. After the art was finished, the folios were then inserted in one another to form a quire, or gathering of leaves, and then placed in order. The quires were then sewn together and enclosed within two wooden boards, sometimes id a family was very poor, they would even a thicker piece of the vellum as protection. The boards were often covered with leather, or when covered with silk and velvet metal bosses were used to cover the corner pieces so not to tare. Depending on the ornate nature of the codex determined the length in which it would take to make. Some varied from a few months to whole life times.


          Manuscripts were not dull objects, they were all full of life. Each had been hand-cut, hand-written, hand-drawn, hand-bound, and hand-covered. But in the church, the people encountered the same existing narratives in the manuscripts they saw or read from over and over. Manuscripts were limited by the locations where they were produced, usually in a scriptorium, as a part of the church. The information was written in what ever language was spoken in the Church, in Europe it was Latin. Bibles and books of hymns were the primary produced manuscripts. Those that were produced of a non-religious nature, which was very rare, were heavily monitored.


            The control that the church had during the 14th and 15th century, previously a caged way of life, had slowly started to deteriorate with the continued blossom of ideas inspired by the Renaissance. The rebirth of culture through music, art, thought, science, mathematics, and literature brought about a change within the European people. The affect it had on their lives continuously increased by altering their values because of the way they changed perspectives to viewed the world, and motivating them to increase the amount of knowledge they sought after.

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              People wanted the ability to share their ideas with many people but manuscripts were a luxury and couldn’t travel far without fear of being stolen. The first method of movable type was invented and developed in China by Bi Sheng, a Han Chinese printer, between 1041 and 1048.[5] The invention was improved upon in Europe credited to the German printer Johannes Gutenberg in 1450. The western invention of movable metal type made possible for the mass-production of books, which had previously been scarce and expensive. In order to print a book a few things need to be accomplished. First, the letters needed to be made. Gutenberg made his own letters from a metal alloy of lead, tin, and antimony for his letters.[6] This same alloy was still used until the beginning of the 20th century. He hand carved and cast multiple copies of each letter and punctuation mark. The design of a printed alphabet allowed for a uniform font to be internationally recognized.


             The transition from written manuscripts to printed books happened gradually, as seen in the designs of early books. Many covers were decorated in very similar ways to manuscripts such as the use of leather, silk and velvet, gold and silver, and sometimes precious stones. For a lot of the printing press houses, the books were bound in a separate shop. A lot of the books printed from a press were not bound. Families that had money were able to have their books bound and covered. Covers of books became more extensive depending on the money that they were willing to spend. Scribes also continued to produce manuscripts throughout the fifteenth century.




          Printed books were considered mundane because of their accessibility, some people of great wealth refused to have ‘common’ printed books in their libraries. Manuscripts came in all different sized but the larger they were, the more they cost. It was not just a source of information, it was also a status symbol. Each page individually cut, beautiful designs painted, sometimes the illustrations were gilded creating an even more status lust. Families would save their whole lives for the ability to own a manuscript because they were precious commodities. Printed books still were costly, but as the number of printing presses continued to increase, the price of books continued to fall. The people demanded the book, they were curious about its abilities, what it could accomplish, what they could accomplish with it. In Italy alone, which was considered a center for print, by 1500 print shops had been established in seventy-seven cities and towns.


          Printing and the channels for distributing books across Europe led to an increase in literacy and changed the way people read. The act of reading and acquiring knowledge steadily broke down the control the literate elite had on education. New ideas and innovative thinking of the Renaissance challenged the teachings and authority of the Church. Printing was known to be a threat, so the church created lists of banned book, which began to appear in the middle of the 16th century. A single Renaissance printing press could produce 3,600 pages per workday, compared to about 2,000 by typographic block-printing, and only a few by hand-copying.[7] The gradual transition from hand written manuscripts to printed books can be shown by a chronology of objects and styles, but it is more than that. This was an evolution of human culture within communication. The number of people that could be reached, that could be taught, that had the ability to interact in a different way grew exponentially. People who didn’t have access to books in Latin were now able to read, and/ or taught. As print technology developed, smaller and cheaper books became available and portable.


          It was thought that a person’s ability to read and write Latin made them literate. Whether they could read or write in their own language was of little importance. Many early printed books were produced in Latin for the clergy but, as the technology of printing spread, the demand for different texts increased. With decreasing desire to have books in Latin, where ever the print shop was located, that language ruled the press. With new variety aloud for text, there was an increase in the mixture of published work. With all the different languages being printed, the standardization of spelling and unified grammar could be achieved.


         The sphere of print production in books founded a new level of communication and opportunities. The print shop worked in assistance closely with the artist, but distanced from the book binder while the book binder remained close to the customer and far from the print shop.


          Many printed books that were illustrated were done so by printing with a carved wood block, in order to attract the population that did not want to, or had no way to learn how to read. The abundance of illustrations in the books was representative of what stories were being written in the text. The ornate patterns and prints seen were also a way for artists to have their work seen. A lot of artists, if they were starting out did not have the proper connections to be granted acceptance as an apprentice, or to have their own work displayed in a salon. Some of them did not even have enough money to afford extensive materials, but a block of wood, a good set of carving tools, with the right motivation and creative know how, highly complex works could be made. Illustrated with woodblock images, which made books visually appealing and accessible to a new audience, more people began to by them. Although not all people that bought the printed books were fully literate, the illustrations acted as the readers guide taking him or her to the first sentence, then the next paragraph, on to the following page.


         The people that bound books did not typically work directly with those who printed them, they helped to support each other. The print shops did not didn’t bind the books, as it was a completely different job. A person could purchase a book and receive it in a bag, uncovered and unbound. They then had to go somewhere to get it bound if they wished to do so. Although it might be thought complicated, all of the channels needed to go through for the production of a book, it gave people a chance to go out of their comfort zone and create or obtain something beautiful.




           The invention of the printing press was a life-changing creation. The ability to rapidly produce replicas of documents allowed information to be shared at a faster pace than thought possible. Because it took less time to produce a printed codex than the hand written manuscript , the increased speed allowed for the decrease in cost. With cheaper prices, people of all economic classes could afford books. No longer were the majority of texts owned by the upper class or the church. The spread of literacy beyond the clergy, scholars and professionals affected the status of women, the emerging middle class, and the education of children. Printed books allowed the identical reproduction of texts on a wide variety of subjects, which went into relatively unrestricted circulation.


         The blossoming number of books enabled people find connections between how different cultures converse, while at the same time comparing the similar ways of how communication really is or how to communicate properly. Methods of communication still continue to change and we must make an effort to understand how different cultures have provided for their people by means of the larger forces in politics, religion, and economics. Through history, all have given shape to material production and the ability to converse in methods other than our own. The spread of print houses was heavily caught up in the drama of national and international competitiveness. We cannot escape cultural exploitation while seeking to expand new methods of communication. It is the ability to get information first, to see the effect, and do what is right. The ability to print what needs to be shared is an exercise of intellectual power through the curiously evocative role of literature.


[1] “Timeline of Books and Printing”

[2] Parchment, Medieval Manuscript Manual: White sheep or cows tend to produce a white parchment.

[3] Manuscript_5a. Interactive; the knife had a half-moon-shaped blade.

[4] Oak Galls: The growth around gall wasp eggs laid in the buds or soft twigs of oak trees. They were then soaked and boiled in water and then thickened with the ground sap of the acacia tree.

[5] Period 4: The Movable Type Printing Press,

[6] Period 4: The Movable Type Printing Press,

[7 “Timeline of Books and Printing”

[8] Parchment, Medieval Manuscript Manual: White sheep or cows tend to produce a white parchment.

[9] Manuscript_5a. Interactive; the knife had a half-moon-shaped blade.

[10] Oak Galls: The growth around gall wasp eggs laid in the buds or soft twigs of oak trees. They were then soaked and boiled in water and then thickened with the ground sap of the acacia tree.

[11] Period 4: The Movable Type Printing Press,

[12] Period 4: The Movable Type Printing Press,

[13] “Printing Press.” Wikipedia


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